I’m told that I have to explain why I teach history. Which is kind of tough. Because, right now at least, I don’t. I’m on leave. Writing. And I won’t be in the classroom again for quite some time (though I can feel the minutes slipping away).
But when I do teach, there are three things that keep me going. Through the grading, that is, which can be a horrible grind. But not a grind like actually working for a living, mind you. If you know what I mean. Anyway, here goes.
1) Remembering all the great teachers I’ve had. This sounds sappy, I know. But it’s true. I had great history teachers in high school, even the long-suffering woman who gave me a “D” in AP Modern European my senior year. Can I mention their names? I really don’t know. So I won’t. Still, they were really good.
I had even better professors in college. And here I think a name is okay. I lucked into Dick Sewell’s Civil War course during the fall of my first year in Madison, Wisconsin. Professor Sewell (that’s what I called him then) was everything I wanted to be: smart, witty, and very kind to an overwhelmed first-year who stumbled into his office a few times that semester. (Ari: “Uh, hi. I liked class today.” Professor Sewell: “Thanks.” Ari: “Well, uh, okay.” Professor Sewell: “Okay then.”) I was hooked. Not by the scintillating conversation, silly. By the teaching. Really, I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And nothing that happened over the next three and a half years changed that.
The professors I worked with in graduate school were also great. Dearly departed Jack Thomas, especially, was one of those teachers who inspired huge rooms filled with cynical Brown undergraduates. He got them thinking about Dewey and Niebuhr, Douglass and King, and DeVoto and Stegner. There weren’t so many women on his syllabi, since you’re rude enough to bring that up, but there were some: the Grimkés and maybe a suffragist or two. Regardless, Jack could make the world of ideas come alive. I still choke up when I realize that Jack isn’t around anymore. The fact that I’ll never hear him lecture about Henry Adams again really sucks.
2) The idea that I might be able to convince students to care about the past. This one is a longshot, I admit. But there are days when the undergraduates in my courses actually seem to leave my class knowing something about republican ideology in the age of the Revolution, David Walker’s Appeal, Indian Removal, or the birth of the Lost Cause myth. These moments don’t happen as often as I’d like. But they happen frequently enough to keep me going.
3) Because I can’t do anything else. This also covers why I write about the past. I had a job before I went to graduate school that most people would consider superior to my current position: the view from my office included Vancouver’s Granville Island, I made good money, and I got to hang out with musicians. But I didn’t really like it. I wanted to do what I do now. And there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel lucky to have this job. Again, that sounds sappy. Actually, it is sappy. What can I do? I’d be useless in any other context. (Okay, Eric, more useless.)
That I get to teach and read and write for a living is teh awesome. Just don’t ask me what gets me through committee meetings. Because I honestly don’t know.